While opinion in Hong Kong is divided over the Government's recent moves on migrants, there is one group who will be celebrating: corrupt mainland officials. Amid all the rows over who would get right of abode, the Government's announcement that it wanted to return to the permit system that was struck down by the Court of Final Appeal (CFA) in January received less attention. This system, according to groups supporting split families, has allowed bribes totalling millions of yuan to change hands. Ho Hei-wah, the director of Society for Community Organisation, says not everyone needs to pay a bribe but, averaging out across those who have to pay and those who don't, results in a 'very, very conservative estimate' of the equivalent of $30,000 to $40,000 each. The Government wants the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress (NPCSC) to help it put this system back in place. If the Government gets its way, the revived permit system coupled with the extra 200,000 people who need permits to come to Hong Kong would mean a $6 billion windfall to cadres who implement the system. Mr Ho knows of one person who not only paid $500,000, but also had to 'donate' a minivan. As well as one-off payments, there are 'entertainment fees' associated with interviews and the step-by-step processing of the permit, such as dinners, bottles of wine or the occasional TV set in a process that may drag out for years. 'The system is very corrupt,' says Mr Ho. But the permit system the Government seeks to bring back from the dead has not only led to corruption, it is the key tool which allows children of Hong Kong residents born in Toronto to come to Hong Kong with ease, while children on the mainland, born in identical circumstances, may have to wait a decade or more to join their parents. The system was drawn up in haste in July 1997 when it became clear that mainland children were being sneaked over the border to enjoy the right of abode granted to them by the Basic Law which had come into force a few days earlier. So the Government modified the procedures to say anyone wanting to exercise their right of living in Hong Kong needed two pieces of paper. One is a certificate of entitlement, issued by the Hong Kong Immigration Department which verifies that someone is really the child of a Hong Kong permanent resident. The children with Hong Kong parents in both Toronto and Dongguan both need this. The second is a one-way permit - in effect, the document issued by Beijing which permits a person to leave the mainland and enter the Special Administrative Region. Only the children in Dongguan need these - and the queue for them is long. Although 150 one-way permits a day are issued, only about 60 are for offspring of Hong Kong parents. Those who follow the rules are doomed to wait for years, although such shortcuts have occasionally been available at high speed in mysterious circumstances. For instance, pop diva Faye Wong brought her Beijing-born baby to Hong Kong in November 1997 without having a one-way permit, in circumstances never explained by Hong Kong authorities. Despite reforms by mainland authorities, such as the introduction of a point system, would-be migrants to Hong Kong continued to complain of requests for cash from mainland officials who believe anyone with relatives in Hong Kong will have lots of money. Because the vital one-way permit is issued by Beijing, not Hong Kong, neither the Hong Kong Immigration Department nor the Independent Commission Against Corruption can have any involvement. 'The one-way permit is a matter for the mainland authorities,' an Immigration Department spokesman said yesterday. But in January, in its controversial right of abode judgment, the CFA threw out the Government's system, saying that it 'would provide a back door for the application of mainland laws' in Hong Kong, and ordered large slabs of regulations to be struck out. The court said it was wrong to give people a right, in this case the right of abode in Hong Kong, but prevent them from actually making use of that right. Philip Dykes, vice-chairman of the Bar Association who was one of the lawyers in the case, said yesterday that the court was very clear that 'it makes the right of abode an illusion if you start making a distinction between a right and the ability to exercise it'. More than half the CFA judgment was devoted to striking down the permit system, with multiple layers of analysis leading to the statement that it cannot be used to prevent people exercising their rights for a decade, and must be operated 'lawfully in a fair and reasonable manner'. But over the past two days, statements by government officials make it clear that the permit system is the cornerstone of the Government's policies in this area. They say that the NPCSC will be asked to interpret Article 22 of the Basic Law, which states that mainland residents need Beijing's permission to come to Hong Kong, to clarify beyond doubt that this includes those with right of abode in Hong Kong. Secretary for Security Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee also left no doubt that it wanted to keep the issue of permits at previous levels. 'The 150 level will stay,' she told reporters. With 60 permits a day reserved for children being reunited with their parents, and a total of about 300,000 people on the mainland with right of abode even if the Government succeeds in restricting it, this would mean those with rights today may have to wait until 2012 to enjoy them. Amid yesterday's rows about who should have the right of abode in Hong Kong, Mr Dykes points out that if the Government is able to reinstate its permit system then it does not matter how many people have the right to come to Hong Kong because the SAR authorities can make them wait an indefinite period for a permit. Not surprisingly, the permit system is likely to be the first line of attack for campaigners wanting to mount further legal challenges. But the deeper issue, according to Chinese University's professor of economics Liu Pak-wai, is that Hong Kong does not have control over who gets the one-way permits. 'They send us whoever, and we just take them in,' he says. Professor Liu points out that even Shenzhen can choose who enters its special economic zone. Why not Hong Kong? 'It would give the system a lot more credibility,' he says. 'The applicants would be more willing to wait.' It would mean the Hong Kong Government would have to set up offices on the mainland - but it should slash the opportunities for corruption. At present, most of the 150 one-way permits a day are issued by mainland authorities at their discretion. Only the overall daily figure is set by Hong Kong, with 60 reserved for offspring and 30 for spouses. The Immigration Department claims it does not even know how the mainland point system operates which selects these children and spouses. And the other 60 a day are totally at the mainland's discretion. One campaigner claims to have evidence that this 'discretion' has been extended to some of the hostesses at a Tsim Sha Tsui East nightclub, who paid $1 million each for their one-way permits, which are repaid out of their Hong Kong earnings. The Hong Kong Government does not deny that the one-way permit system involves some corruption. Speaking in the Legislative Council in November, Deputy Secretary for Security Sally Wong Pik-yee said the Government had 'reflected the concerns' to mainland officials at regular briefings.